Hungary at Home

According to his admirers, Prime Minister Orban’s third achievement is to restore and rehabilitate Hungary’s past, including its pre-war and war-time leader, Regent Admiral Miklos Horthy. It was Horthy who rushed troops and armored vehicles to the streets to halt Jewish deportations, one of the very few times in Nazi-occupied Europe when anyone took up arms in defense of the Jews. 

By Marek Jan Chodakiewicz | January 21, 2015

“A neo-fascist dictator” is what good Senator John McCain called Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary. Given a relentless sludge of black propaganda against the Hungarian and his ruling coalition, John McCain’s injudicious remark reflects the unfair image purveyed by the media in the West. A more balanced view can obtain from a careful analysis of Orban and his actions. It all started with Budapest’s new domestic policy.

Let us recall that until quite recently Orban himself was a liberal. In fact, for almost a decade after 1989 he was cozy with the post-Communists and actively fought against conservatives, like the late Prime Minister Jozef Antall, who wanted to de-Communize, vet secret police agents, achieve property restitution, and use the government to protect the poor and downtrodden victims of Communism from the post-Communists and liberals enriching themselves in an unmitigated orgy of embezzlement. Then Orban changed. He became a Christian populist conservative with a nationalist streak. His is a system of national solidarity. The conversion appears genuine, but may complement the politician’s drive for power. The prime minister has indeed praised “illiberal democracy” and has professed his loss of faith in the free market because of the economic collapse of 2008. Most controversially, he has worked closely with a nefarious coalition partner, the radical nationalist Jobbik party, which displays a pronounced anti-Jewish, anti-Roma, and anti-Western streak.

For the record, since 2010, the Magyar politician and his populist-conservative party FIDESZ have won free general elections twice in a row, each time securing over 2/3 in the parliament, including the Jobbik. In 2014 alone, Orban scored three victories: in local, national, and European elections. This looks like a solid democratic mandate. The victorious coalition set to reforming the nation. The chief vehicle of reform was the government. This was because the Hungarian state is the single entity capable of mobilizing resources to overthrow post-Communism. Outside of the state there are no independent, powerful, and wealthy institutions or individuals willing to take on the post-Communists.

The prime minister faced formidable obstacles to reform in a nation where not so long ago there was no native capital and no native capitalist class except the post-Communists, who oftentimes worked in cahoots with Western investors and interests, eager to cooperate with anyone guaranteeing them profits. Meanwhile, the Communists morphed into “social democrats” and “liberals,” some of whom, so-called Marxist revisionists, had even registered a stint with the anti-regime opposition shortly before 1989. The post-Communist system seemed hermetically sealed. Simply, in the wake of the transformation of Communism, the Communists helped themselves not only to industry and banking but also to the media, while remaining entrenched in the state bureaucracy, including the judiciary. Crony capitalism ensued. Communism morphed into post-Communism and the chief beneficiaries of freedom were the erstwhile apparatchiks. To add insult to injury, the West apparently countenanced the system as it emerged after 1989. Hence, conservative, populist, and nationalist Hungarians frowned upon what they came to perceive as a noxious leftist-liberal alliance to dominate their country.  They gave Orban a clear democratic mandate for radical change.

Most importantly, commanding 2/3 majority in the parliament, the prime minister introduced a new constitution, grounded in Christian values, Magyar tradition, and etatism, which allowed him to implement a comprehensive dismantling of the legacy of Communism and post-Communism. Orban’s many Hungarian supporters argue that among his most notable achievements are media, judiciary, academic, and economic reforms.

His coalition government has managed to break the post-Communist and liberal monopoly on the judiciary.  Orban eased the post-Communist judges out through mandatory retirement. He replaced them with a young crop of judges, prosecutors, and lawyers, many of them conservatives. Naturally enough, the liberal media did not like this but Senator McCain should understand the difference between FDR’s or Obama’s court packing schemes to benefit the liberals as befits a democratic game and Orban’s de-Communization of the judiciary which has many, if belated, parallels with our denazification of Germany’s judicial system in the wake of the Second World War.

According to similar logic, Orban broke the post-Communist and liberal monopoly on the media. Media laws allow the government to redress the imbalance in media ownership and operation stemming from the legacy of Communism and post-Communism. As a “Big Government” conservative, Senator McCain should find this agreeable. Simply, as the government represents the vast majority of the Hungarian electorate, all of them dispossessed by over 40 years of Soviet and Communist occupation, the parliament resolved to promote the pro-regime media. This is done by licensing and advertising. In the former case, the post-Communists and their liberal allies find it hard to obtain permits to operate; just like previously, not only under Communism, but for twenty years after 1989, conservatives and others experienced problems having their voices heard in the media since they lacked the capital and connections to have been included in the division of the spoils in post-Communism. As far as advertising, the government now simply continues to pursue a policy of supporting pro-government media as the post-Communists did for two decades after 1989. Namely, the state advertises only in the newspapers, radio programs, and on TV shows that are sympathetic to Orban and the ruling coalition. The government does not advertise with the opposition. When the post-Communists and liberals pursed the same policy while in power, neither they nor their Western fans ever complained about this. At any rate, FDR went with a vengeance after unfriendly press, hounding the owners with the IRS and starving them of news. Unlike in Hungary, newspapermen were imprisoned in the U.S., for example Moe Annenberg. Obama has similarly attempted to castrate unfriendly radio broadcasters.

According to his admirers, Orban’s third achievement is to restore and rehabilitate Hungary’s past, including its pre-war and war-time leader, Regent Admiral Miklos Horthy. Under his rule, Hungary joined Germany to recoup the lands lost as a result of the First World War in the Treaty of Trianon and to fight the Soviets. With the fortunes of war waning, Budapest attempted to switch sides and it was occupied by the Third Reich in March 1944. Orban stresses that his nation thus lost its independence, which was regained only in 1990. This is controversial for some because it implies that Hungary was solely a victim. It played no part in the Holocaust.

Budapest does not deny that there was anti-Jewish legislation under Horthy, but it tries to explain away the expulsion of some 17,000 non-citizen Jews to Nazi-occupied Ukraine where they were promptly murdered in the summer of 1941. More egregiously, the current government’s critics correctly charge, despite the fact that Hungary was occupied, it was mostly Hungarian personnel, albeit under German supervision, that rounded up the Jewish population to be deported and exterminated at Auschwitz in the summer of 1944. It is equally true, however, that it was Horthy who rushed troops and armored vehicles to the streets to halt Jewish deportations, one of the very few times in Nazi-occupied Europe when anyone took up arms in defense of the Jews.  Orban’s detractors are thus livid that his historical narrative seems to imply Hungary’s innocence and victimhood. The supporters of the prime minister stress, however, that Hungary’s historical narrative is primarily about the Hungarian majority which suffered foreign oppression between 1944 and 1990. With all due respect to the tragedy of the minorities, the Jewish people in particular, the majority population should be permitted to bemoan its martyrdom too, according to the current Magyar government.

Fourth reason for Orban’s huge popularity is his intervention in the economy. Most notably, he forced the banks to take serious losses to lower debt and payments from many Hungarian consumers who over borrowed to finance their homes and apartments, usually in hard currency. Arguably, the biggest losers were Western investors who were shocked at the treatment received at the hands of the erstwhile free marketer. The Magyar populists and nationalists applauded with delight. Obama’s supporters should also be happy with such anti-business assertiveness.  However, this really did not help Hungary recuperate from the economic crisis and its performance remains lackluster. Nonetheless, for the prime minister national solidarity trumps free market economics. Whether as a result of his meddling he merely replaces the post-Communist crony capitalism with his own brand remains to be seen.

Although these four factors – judicial reforms, media laws, historical restoration, and economic intervention – were designed and executed specifically with Hungary’s domestic problems in mind, they also mightily contribute to the jaundiced eye with which the Westerners tend to view Budapest. And they further impact and inform the perception of the Magyar foreign policy by the Western observers.   But that is another story.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is a Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics, A Graduate School of National Security and International Affairs in Washington, DC, where he also holds the Kościuszko Chair in Polish Studies. Professor Chodakiewicz is author of Intermarium: The Land between the Black and Baltic Seas. He is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.